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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Algae May Be a ‘Brilliant’ Solution for Capturing Carbon at Gigaton Scale

By controlling and replicating natural processes, Brilliant Planet’s technology can permanently sequester CO2 from the air while also deacidifying the ocean.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, humanity has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by 50 percent. The IPCC has made it clear that decarbonization on its own is not enough to prevent the planet from warming to uninhabitable temperatures; and if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, approximately six billion tons (gigatons) of CO2 needs to be removed from the atmosphere per year by 2050. Therefore, we must not only decarbonize as many activities as possible — we must also find ways to recapture the carbon that has already been emitted into the atmosphere.

London-based Brilliant Planet has a suitably brilliant solution: The company has found a way to sequester carbon at the gigaton scale with algae — an affordable and scalable method for removing carbon permanently from the air.

“Algae has a phenomenal capacity to remove carbon dioxide: It absorbs about as much carbon as all the plants and trees on land combined,” Brilliant Planet co-founder Raffael Jovine told Sustainable Brands®. Jovine has a PhD in molecular biochemistry and has worked at MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, living and breathing algae for a decade all over the world. ”Algae are inherently more efficient carbon-removal machines than terrestrial plants as they don’t spend biological resources on building a supporting infrastructure of trunks, roots and branches — their entire surface area is dedicated to photosynthesis.”

Founded in 2013, Brilliant Planet has spent over a decade researching algae and developing its proprietary production process. Fundamental insights from R&D and a wealth of real-world findings from pilot projects means it is now ready to deploy commercial operations globally.

The process works by growing marine microalgae in large, controlled, outdoor ponds on coastal desert land — using nutrient-rich seawater and sunlight as input. As the organisms rapidly develop and replicate, they are moved into progressively larger enclosures up to the point of harvest.

As Jovine explains: “The exponential growth rate of the algae means that they rapidly transition from being housed in a single beaker of inoculant in the greenhouse on day one to filling four 12,000m^2^, open-air ponds during the final phases of growth. Fine-mesh filters are used to separate the biomass completely from purified seawater before it is solar-dried in the open desert air.”

When the algae are solar-dried, the moisture content drops below the level where biological degradation would be possible. In addition, the dried biomass is extremely salty (20-40 percent salt content), which creates a moisture barrier. Burying the dried biomass 1-4 meters below the desert surface ensures it remains stable for thousands of years, locking in the sequestered carbon.

“Our digital platform reacts precisely to the real-time status of the algae, with only a few basic low-cost inputs from each pond and public weather information. Commercially, this has been the real breakthrough,” explained CEO and co-founder Adam Taylor, who has spent the last 10 years building a vertically integrated group of aquaculture companies in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Brilliant Planet’s solution also deacidifies the discharged seawater; its high alkalinity, relative to its surroundings, means that it quickly equilibrates with the atmosphere — absorbing CO2 and facilitating the growth of shell-forming organisms. For every unit of water that passes through the system, the equivalent of five units of water is deacidified to pre-industrial pH levels.

“The elegance of this system's effective, low-cost process relies on the intense understanding of algae photophysiology,” Jovine explains. “It’s critical to consider the co-benefits of CDR [carbon-dioxide removal] solutions and how they contribute to a just transition. By the nature of our solution, we’re able to contribute to coastal restoration and deacidification — as well as economic development in areas that don’t have a lot of other opportunities.”

Brilliant Planet believes that coastal deserts are ideal locations to develop its facilities. The team has operated pilots across varied climates including South Africa, Oman and Morocco. At each location, they start by bioprospecting for suitable local strains of algae to maximize the use of strains that are already well-adapted to growing in the local conditions. Using local strains also protects against contamination in the area.

“Deserts are large, dry and barren — which means we never compete with natural biomass or food-growing land. Size offers us the potential for tremendous scale; the world’s hot deserts are the size of the US and Europe, combined,” Taylor says. “Using a GIS model to sort for site characteristics — for example, flat land — we’ve identified a shortlist of around half-a-million square kilometers of suitable desert; that’s about 2 gigatons per year of carbon-removal potential.”

Brilliant Planet is set to start building a 30-hectare demonstration facility later this year, before constructing a 1,000-hectare commercial-scale facility that will remove 100,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. The team has recently received $12 million in series A funding — co-led by Union Square Ventures and Toyota Ventures — with other investors including Future Positive Capital, AiiM Partners, S2G Ventures, Hatch and Pegasus Tech Ventures.

“We envision a future with a large, but feasible, number of algal-sequestration facilities globally. Our scalable, modular platform has no limiting factors such as chemical inputs or freshwater availability. At the scale of a gigaton of CO2, Brilliant Planet would start to look like an infrastructure technology provider, similar to a solar panel or wind turbine manufacturer,” Taylor explains. “It’s time to get algae on the radar. Everyone talks about the trade-offs between planting trees and direct air capture — we believe that algae is the best of both worlds!”